Mickalene Thomas: ‘A black woman’s existence on this planet is a revolutionary act’

Posted by: Kevin Coyle

This post was curated from an article written by Victoria Stapley-Brown for The Art Newspaper

Mickalene Thomas: Do I Look Like a Lady?, a show of new and recent work by the New York-based artist that opens this month at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, is named after a two-channel video that meshes footage of African-American women performers of the 20th and 21st centuries. The exhibition also includes a new series of silk-screen portraits of the actresses Diahann Carroll and Pam Grier, among others, installed in a room styled like a 1970s domestic interior. We spoke to Thomas about how the works came about.

The show is supported by the Sydney Irmas Exhibition Endowment.

How did you select the clips for the video installation?

The clips are of female performers (singers, comedians) who have influenced my work and understanding of what it means to be a woman, particularly a black woman. These specific clips identify the narrative that began during the 1970s around black femininity, and the variety of ways in which women were reclaiming and contesting the traditional definition of women.

How did you assemble the installation and how do you hope the portrait series will fit into it?

The installation is constructed as an interlude for visual contemplation, as a way to enable the viewer to experience the seduction of the moving image and [the] stillness of the paintings. The space is occupied by the viewer as [a] participant.

What is the origin of its title?

The title Do I Look Like a Lady? confronts historical notions of what [it] means to be a woman (ie, lady) and suggests that what one looks like and what one “is” are not always synonymous. The whole exhibition, the work and the title, invite an open dialogue around race, gender and subject position.

What is the common thread across your work in various media? Does working in another medium change your approach?

The common thread across my work is that a black woman’s existence on this planet is a revolutionary act and her gaze [is] powerful. Working in video allows these concepts to be made more directly tangible. The approach remains the same; only the medium changes.

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